With hammer blows that echoed around the vast Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, a young monk named Martin Luther nailed to the church door a document on which he had written ninety five ‘theses’ which he wished to debate in public. These were matters of church doctrine and practice which Luther thought were unscriptural and to which he wanted to draw attention. History shows that not only did those hammer blows disturb the peace of the church building that day, they were to disturb the peace of the whole of Christendom as it then was and to indicate that truth was at last hammering on the door of error. The year was 1517. What was it that had forced the young monk out with hammer and nails on that fateful day? Shortly before this incident, another monk had appeared not far from Wittenberg selling something special. Tetzel, for that was his name, had made a career and fortune selling indulgences. These were pieces of paper which people could buy and which guaranteed the purchaser a reduced sentence in purgatory. Church teaching of the time stated that the souls of believers did not go straight to heaven after death but went to a place called purgatory. How long one spent there, where unacknowledged and unrepented of sin was purged, was different for each person.However, all suffered severely in purgatory. The sale of such indulgences was wide-spread in Luther’s day. Tetzel, however, had added a flavour of his own, a magnificently money - parting inducement to those who did not anticipate dying for a longtime. His indulgences, he claimed, were special. For not only could you reduce your own future sentence in purgatory by buying one of these indulgences, you could also reduce the present sentences of those who were already dead and in torment. ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’, he cried. Who could pass by the opportunity to let their dead mother, father, grandparents, friends, etc; out of torment? Tetzel was on to a winner, and the money poured in. Luther was appalled. When he first became a monk he had troubled his soul, and tortured his body, with useless attempts to atone for his sins, until one day, when studying the Bible for himself, he came across the words in Galatians ‘the just shall live by faith’.
Suddenly it dawned on Martin Luther that all the feeble attempts we make to justify ourselves, and to atone for our sins, are useless and pointless. A man, woman or child is saved from the penalty of their sins discovered, not by what they do (or pay) but by what they believe. Faith in the atoning work of Christ alone is sufficient for salvation. Luther came to understand that the words ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans 1, which he had been taught to think meant the righteousness by which God justly punishes the sinner, did not mean anything of the kind. Instead Luther wrote, it meant ‘the righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise’. Luther exulted in God’s free grace. How dare this Tetzel, then, claim in the name of the church to set souls free from judgement by the mere payment of money! What false hopes this Tetzel stirred in the minds of the average man or woman! Surely the church should know of this deceit and forbid him to raise money in this false way. It is doubtful whether Martin Luther ever intended the nailing of these 95 objections to the church door to lead where it did: they were originally written in Latin, but others translated them into German so that ordinary people could read them. The resultant furore led eventually to Martin Luther being summoned to stand before the Diet of Worms a in 1521. The intention was to get him to withdraw his teachings. The Diet was presided over by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and attended by some of the greatest church dignitaries of the day. Luther was on trial for his life. When Luther entered the room he found his writings laid on a table before him and he was asked to confirm they were his. When he said they were, he was told to ‘recant’– to admit they were wrong. Luther asked for a night to deliberate, knowing full well that if he refused to say he had been wrong, he would in all probability be sentenced to death, and be burned alive, tied to a stake as a heretic. The following day, in a candle-lit, packed out room, Martin Luther stood, alone, facing all the might and power of an unchallenged world-wide Roman Catholic church and the armies of the Empire. He answered the question loudly and clearly. ‘Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I willnot retract anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God’. If the hammer blows on that church door have echoed over the centuries of time, so have those brave words of a courageous man. Luther was rescue by friends before he was arrested for heresy. He was hidden in a castle, protected by powerful political forces. Whilst there he translated the Bible from the Latin read by church leaders only into German. This was the first time the Bible had been made available in a vernacular language and his courage led, eventually, to the translation of the Bible into English. His writings and teachings about justification by faith alone spread around the world. There is no doubt that Luther had his faults. None of us is perfect. To many he did not go far enough in his repudiation of Roman Catholic doctrine. Other reformers followed in his footsteps and discovered even more truth from the Bible. A good start in reading more about him is the classic biography HERE I STAND by Roland Bainton. Luther was a man of his times, with a temperament not suited to all. Yet God used him to recover the doctrine of justification by faith alone, without which no man can be saved. He was, and is, a hero to many. We all stand in his massive shadow, and debt, today.